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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Shabbos Shuva 5774 - The Hardest Part

By Rabbi Sender Haber

I

Many years ago our forefather Yaacov married two wives, Rachel and Leah. He later married their two maidservants Bilha and Zilpah as well. The Torah tells us that Yaacov spent more time with Rachel than with any of his other wives, despite the fact that Leah was the mother of the oldest children and also the bulk of the twelve tribes. Reuvein was bothered by this slight to his mother.

When Rachel passed away, Reuvain was sure that his mother would finally receive the central position that she deserved. He was shocked to find that Yaacov had left Rachel’s tent and moved, not to Leah’s tent, but to the tent of Bilhah. Reuvain took action and moved Yaacov’s possessions to the tent of his mother, Leah.

As Rachel’s children grew older it became clear that Yaacov had a special fondness for them. He taught all of his wisdom to Yosef and Yosef began to tell of dreams in which the other brothers became subservient to him. The situation finally came to a head when the brothers saw Yosef off in the distance and conspired to kill him. It was Reuvain who convinced them not to kill him but to the throw him into a pit instead. Reuvain intended to return and rescue Yosef.

Reuvain’s plan did not quite work out. The brothers sold Yosef and when Reuvain returned to the pit he was no longer there. Reuvain had not been with the brothers at the time of the sale because he had been busy repenting for his sin of moving his father’s belongings from Bilhah’s tent. When he saw that Yosef had disappeared he sat on the ground and ripped his clothing in distress.

The Medrash tells us that Hashem himself consoled Reuvain. “You”, G-d said, “are the very first person in history to do Teshuva. You will have a great-grandson named Hoshea ben Ailah who will call upon the people of his generation to do Teshuva as well”.

On every Shabbos Shuva we read the Haftorah of Shuva Yisroel from the prophet Hoshea ben Ailah, descendant of the tribe of Reuvain. Reuvain was the first person to do Teshuva and it is fitting that his grandson is the prophet who calls upons to Teshuva before the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash and every year at this time.

This Medrash is puzzling. Was Reuvain really the first person to do Teshuva? What about Adam and Chava? They ate from the tree of knowledge and life against the express wishes of Hashem. The Gemara in Eiruvin tells us: “Rav Meir said: Adam was a very pious man. When he saw that he had brought death to the world he sat and fasted for 130 years”. That should count.

Furthermore, the Medrash tells us that Yehudah is credited with inspiring Reuvain to repent. Why does Reuvain get credit as the first?

II

Before we speak of Teshuva, we need to talk about why it is that people sin. It seems that if G-d had made a perfect world where everyone who did good was rewarded and anyone who sinned was punished, we would have no doubts in our mind and no desire to sin. We sin because we think we’ll get something better. We sin to enjoy ourselves or because we don’t understand why we shouldn’t.

The reality is, and everyone knows this, that our understanding of bad and good is limited. What we naturally think of as good is not truly good or fulfilling.

First of all, we are all going to die. At some point we have to realize that none of that money or fame or even good reputation is going to help us in the grave.

Secondly, we know – even if we don’t like to think about it – that nothing lasts forever. Markets change, job markets change, interests change. Not everybody’s fifteen minutes lasts forever.

Most importantly, the man or woman who has everything never really has everything. We wish we had what he or she has, whether it’s their family, their social life, or their car, but we all know that he or she is never totally happy. The Talmud tells us that nobody dies satisfied.

What then do we have? We have wisdom and knowledge and happiness. We have our state of mind. None of us mind working hard as long as we believe in what it is that we are doing. If we believe in our cause, we are willing to give up our money our jobs, our friends, and even our lives for that cause.

King Solomon said that “to the man who is good before him, Hashem gave wisdom, direction and happiness; but to the sinner he gave a compulsion to collect more and more stuff”.

As mature people, we understand that the very best thing in the world is to have a cause that we can believe in. We’ll do anything and do it happily if we truly believe in it. The Medrash says that Mordechai was that man with wisdom and direction and happiness. Haman was the sinner who was just obsessed with power but was not happy.

Reb Yom Tov Ehrlich sings a song about a Russian General who came through Poland and Germany and attended at a banquet after the end of the war. He rubbed shoulders with the U.S. generals, the French officials, the British Admirals and the Russian leaders. As he looked around at the ball his eyes fell on a statue of Napoleon. He thought to himself, “That’s where I’m going to be. In a few years everyone will forget my name and what I did. When I die a few people will put down flowers and then I will be totally forgotten. At best I will be made into a statue for people to stare at and rest their drinks on”. The general ripped off his medals in disgust and began to reminisce about his childhood in a tiny Russian village. He thought about Shabbos and about his parent’s home. He remembered his father taking him to the rebbe and getting a blessing that he will grow up to be a righteous man. He remembered his mother on her deathbed promising that she will always be with him and he knows that it was true. By the time the orchestra started up a waltz and got ready to honor him, he was gone. He ran away to the United States and became one of the old men who sat at the back of the shul. He said he’d had enough of being a general. He’d rather be a simple drummer in Hashem’s army.

We sin because we forget what is really important to us. We make irresponsible decisions because we want instant gratification. We want to satisfy our laziness or our temper or some other terrible Yetzer Hora that we have.

Hashem doesn’t make it easy for us. He makes it very unclear whether we are headed for anything good. We know that Hashem forgets nothing, but that is not always apparent.

Still, it is worthwhile to be a Tzaddik. The day to day is rough, grueling, even tortuous at times, but we are fulfilled we are connected with something good and we are headed somewhere worthwhile.

III

We cope with all of the ups and downs and challenges of life because our lives have direction and meaning, but what if we were to find out that we are wrong? What if we suddenly realize that our adamant stance is taking us in a wrong and meaningless direction?

This is why the teshuva of Reuvain was different than any teshuva that preceded him. Adam and Yehuda knew the rules and broke them. They were great people and they knew that they had broken the rules. Regret was easy, penance was natural. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t marry your daughter-in-law or eat from the one tree that G-d tells you not to eat from.

Reuvain’s sin was totally different. Reuvain’s sin was a philosophy. He felt bad for his mother. He felt that Leah was the future of the Jewish people and that she had been wronged by Yaacov. He couldn’t bear to see Bilha taking a place ahead of Leah. He knew that there would be consequences for getting involved, but it was worth it to him. This was what he believed in. If he were to die doing it he would die with a smile knowing that he was fighting the good fight. Even if Yaacov disagreed, he was ready to go forward. He believed in it.

The children of Yaacov were divided into two streams and Reuvain believed that the future lay with Leah. All of the kings would come from Leah. Reuvain, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun came from Leah. They got things done. The children of Leah were not impressed with Yosef or with Binyamin, Dan, Naftali, Gad or Asher. Even Yaacov sent Yehudah ahead to organize Goshen. He wasn’t willing to put it all in the hands of Yosef. This wasn’t about sibling rivalry; it was about the future of the Jewish people. Reuvain was on a mission.

The Gemara says that if you think that Reuvain sinned, you are making a mistake. Even at its simplest level, Reuvain was sticking up for his mother. That’s nothing to apologize for.

Still, in the final analyses Reuvain did not act correctly. He was criticized by Yaacov and later by Moshe and later still in Divrei Hayamaim. He was criticized by history. He lost his birthright and his right to be king. It was probably all worth it.

This was the greatness of Reuvain. He realized that he was wrong. He didn’t do teshuva on his actions; he totally changed his way of thinking. He saw Yehudah regret his physical misdeeds and took it a step further. He said, “I can also do teshuva, not only on my actions, but on my entire being. I can change who I am, what drives me and what I am passionate about”.

IV

You might have part of your family that has been shunned for generations over an argument that nobody remembers.

You might be upset at somebody for their political views or for their apathy.

You might have one weakness that you feel is part a parcel of your being and who you are.

So many of our beliefs are governed by the thirteen principles of faith and those are inviolate. But we have other beliefs too. We need to change some of those. Just because you didn’t need bicycle helmets and positive reinforcement when you were a kid doesn’t mean that it is a mitzvah to keep your minhag going. We all have things that we do because we convinced ourselves that they are right. They are a philosophy, a way of life. Teshuva is actually changing our minds.

Csanád Szegedi was a politician in Jobbik and a member of the European Parliament. He was considered an anti-Semite. He tried to block the Jewish congress from meeting in Hungary, he denied the holocaust and he wanted to register all Jews on a list because they might be enemies of the state. Then he found out that he was Jewish and that his grandmother had been in Auschwitz. Suddenly, he knew that the Holocaust did happen and that his grandparents were there. He realized that Ant-Semitism was unfair and he didn’t feel so comfortable being anti-Israel anymore. He resigned from his party.

That is teshuva. Segedi completely changed his way of thinking. What he did to change his ways wasn’t so important or relevant except to make the story more interesting. The way he thought was the real challenge. But he did it.

Think back to something that you used to believe in. Rethink it. If you don’t believe in it anymore, come to terms with that. Say “I was wrong about Vietnam, or about the Mets, or about organic fruits or unethical people”.

If you still believe it, think about that even more strongly. Why aren’t you fighting for it anymore? Are you above thirty and just going with the flow? Are you too busy, too burned out, or too chicken?
The real teshuva happens in our minds. We need to set a course for ourselves and be willing to adjust it when necessary. If we had expected to have five boys who would be an all-star basketball team and we ended up with three girls who are doctors, we need to adjust our whole way of thinking. There is more to it than just saying, “I’m proud of you”, “I understand” or “I’ll go to the graduation”.

That takes change of thought. It takes a new direction and thinking about things totally differently.

That is what we are obligated to do on Yom Kippur.

Hashem wants us to focus on what is difficult and He wants us to focus on doing what we believe is right regardless of hardship. And when it comes to teshuva, the most difficult teshuva of all is calibrating what we believe is right. The hardest change is changing our minds.

V

On January tenth, 1992 a shipment of Rubber Duckies was headed from Hong Kong to the United States. There was a terrible storm and 28,800 bath toys were washed overboard. Ten months later, on November sixteenth, the Rubber Duckies started to show up on the shores of Alaska. There were also red beavers, blue frogs and green turtles. They spent about three years circling around with the oceans currents and showing up in Hawaii and Japan. Some made their way through the Bering Strait up to the Arctic Ocean and were actually frozen into the Arctic Drift. Oceanographers got involved and predicted that they would eventually reach the Northern Atlantic. Rewards were offered. Sure enough, the Rubber Duckies spent about six years travelling across the North Pole and started to move southward. They were spotted in Maine and Massachusetts. In 2007 a duck was found on a beach in England. These ducks are faded and covered with seaweed but they have been sold at auctions for over $1000.

The most amazing thing about this story is that he oceanographers were able to predict exactly where and when the ducks would land. The Rubber Duckies made a difficult, heroic, and famous journey, but there was no will power. They are just Rubber Duckies.

Don’t be a Rubber Duckie. Don’t just go where you are told and let the ocean’s currents pull you around. Don’t let yourself go into automatic pilot. Think hard and be willing to change your way of thinking.

(Based on an address by Harav Moshe Feinstein to the Jewish Community of Luban, Shabbos Shuva 1922)

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